Using Art of the Steal in Battle Over the Barnes


Don Argott never intended “to change the course of anything,” he says. But the filmmaker’s new documentary, The Art of the Steal, is intensifying a pitched battle in the art world over the fate of the Barnes Foundation, a $25 billion personal collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art, that, contrary to the wishes of its late founder Albert C. Barnes, is set to move into a newly built facility in downtown Philadelphia in 2012.

Art critics and Barnes acolytes are using the film to raise public awareness of what they see as an injustice and, perhaps, spark enough upheaval to obstruct the flow of donations necessary to carry out the move. Having currently raised $160 million of its planned $200 million for construction and endowment costs, the new Barnes will always be dependent on support from the philanthropic community as well as local and state government coffers.

“We have the hope that this movie may shame some of these philanthropists,” says Walter Herman, a founding member of the Friends of the Barnes, an organization devoted to keeping the Barnes in the same Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion where it’s been since 1925. “If one philanthropist would say, ‘I don’t want my name sullied with destroying a historical landmark’ . . . maybe the whole thing would collapse.” (Point of fact: The Merion location isn’t actually a designated historical landmark.)

Given the tight economic times, particularly in Philadelphia, where public libraries are shuttering due to staff shortages, critics of the relocation say the only way the Barnes might remain in Merion is by the availability of money (or lack thereof). “I think the cost is going to be a serious problem,” says arts journalist David D’Arcy, who has criticized the new site as a “mega-destination.” “It’s going to be a huge burden, and the Philadelphia charities are always desperate,” he adds, “so adding another [nonprofit institution] is going to be a problem.”

But Derek Gillman, the Barnes’s current executive director and president (who declined to participate in the film), argues that the move to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway “has been designed to create financial sustainability for the future, so it’s moving from an unsustainable model to a sustainable one.” (Supporters of the suburban Barnes argue that it could be sustained for a fraction of the expense of the modern facility, and would never have been in trouble had the move’s financial backers materialized for the foundation years ago.) And for those who claim the new Barnes won’t replicate the intimacy of the original Beaux Arts–style classical building—a charge that The Art of the Steal makes damningly explicit—Gillman responds, “In what way, when the galleries are the same size and scale and hung the same way?”

Prominent critics will continue to press the issue. Those against the new Barnes include the L.A. Times‘ Christopher Knight and The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl—the latter of whom once wrote, “Altering so much as a molecule of one of the greatest art installations I have ever seen would be an aesthetic crime.”

Argott’s film, which unabashedly takes sides, may further fuel such fiery opposition. But ultimately, the director himself doesn’t believe the documentary “could put the breaks on it,” he says. “When you start looking at all the people involved—Pew, Annenberg, Comcast; huge corporations and political figures—I don’t know how [the move] can not happen.”